Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Historians Bypass the Museum

This week I've been head-desking over one of the latest self-justifications of decorative dog-fanciers, their claim that they are "preservation breeders." Been a lot of argle-bargle about the important public service the ribbon-hoarders perform by perpetuating "pure" breeds of "heritage" dogs in the run-up to "National Purebred Dog Day," designated for May Day, because that's apparently not a calendar date that freights any meaning already, so why not?

Aside from describing the role that highly-inbred animals from artificially closed gene pools play as a model for tragic human genetic diseases as a god-damned feature -- like "oh yeah, we've been breeding these year-old bitch puppies to their own daddies for eight generations running because science and help humanity and not in any way to make sure that their ears stand up or flop over or whatever they are supposed to do in exactly the way that makes them crush the competition at the pageants" -- aside from that, the gormless website promoting this advanced codswallop describes the objects of their fancy hobby this way:

I'll just let yinz roll that around for a while. Really take it in. That designation was not presented as a pejorative, as snark, as criticism or satire. They said that about their own, um, let's call them dogs. I've screencapped it in case someone realizes what they've just said and takes it down. We are meant to admire these people for keeping and perpetuating museum pieces with a pulse.

Let's consider the external justifications for the "preservation," at some considerable expense and time and trouble, of inbred outlier populations of domestic animals and plants. Because there are some.

One good reason is preservation of specific, identified traits that might not be what a preponderance of users (farmers, pastoralists, working-animal handlers, pet owners, gardeners, orchardists, etc.) currently need or want, but that people in outlier circumstances do currently need, and/or that changing circumstances may require in the future.

Simple example, an apple cultivar that is resistant to a plant virus that is not currently a major problem in most apple-growing regions, but that in ten years may start sweeping orchards and wiping out crops because of an introduced insect vector, or, oh yeah, we broke the goddamned planet and now what?

We need the eccentric heritage orchardist who has preserved fifty varieties of eighteenth-century apples to unhoist our petards. And we have no way of knowing which bit of genetics is going to be crucial tomorrow, so save all the useful things.

And meanwhile, buy and eat them apples, so that eccentric apple guy can make a living or at least keep up his hobby.

Other circumstances can be social and economic changes that create demand for old genetics in and of themselves. People who reject the miserable lives of industrial pigs and want to eat pork from animals who lived on pasture as if they were real animals have an interest in livestock conservators who have maintained rare genetic lines of pigs that thrive on pasture -- whether those are inbred, "pure" lines of old breeds and landraces, or populations that mix those lines and breeds and continue to select for the traits that make a pasture pig happy, healthy, and productive.

But here's the rub when conserving the functional genetics of domestic animals and plants.

Use it or lose it.

With some plants, one can literally maintain germ plasm virtually unchanged via low-tech traditional cloning. A scion from a hundred-year-old apple tree, grafted onto suitable rootstock, will have functionally identical properties to the parent plant. So as long as the parent plant is alive, a century of neglect can be undone in a few years by a suitably educated and skilled conservator.

With some other plants and all animals, there is no "preservation." Genes gotta recombine to make babbies. In order to prevent genetic loss, the steward must make sound selection decisions every generation.

She must ask herself "What am I conserving?" and ensure that those traits are the ones she selects on. One cannot select for everything equally. There has to be a list of priorities. There has to be compromise on the frills.

Even with a uniformly smart, informed, diligent community of conservators, there will be drift over time. Hidden traits that the environment does not challenge -- say, resistance to an animal disease that was once widely troublesome but is now controlled by vaccination -- will fade away, unbeknownst to the conservators. The selection environment will change subtlely or dramatically, and the animals will change with it. And in isolated populations -- whether formally locked down in closed studbooks, geographically isolated, or just mostly closed to outside genetics, there will be genetic drift, the island effect. Some genes will be lost, some will come to predominate, and heterozygosity will decrease. Decreases in overall heterozygosity will inevitably decrease the overall fitness of the individuals in the population (of animals, not always with plants).

By decreasing overall fitness, I mean, the animals will start suffering from punkish immune systems, enzootic cancers at a young age, infertility, high infant mortality, and birth defects. Not to mention, though one should, specific genetic disorders associated with specific defective alleles widespread (or universal) in the population. In short, they live tenuously and die easy.

Part of conservation is always ensuring that there is enough gene transfer in to mitigate the deleterious effects of both drift and selection. It's not enough to try to slow down genetic loss by avoiding new genetic bottlenecks and selecting for basic biological fitness before distinct traits or fancy points; that can be, at most, a holding action until people get their shit together and rocket forward all the way to the mid-20th century.

Which is why the term and concept "purebred" is shear nineteenth-century hokum, the Feeji Mermaid of genetic selection. An idea that needs to die before it kills again.

So what of the new line that purebred dog fanciers are "preservationists" on par with museum curators, only their exhibits posses the bug feature of "a pulse?"

Is there a case to be made for maintaining many genetically isolated populations of morphologically diverse dogs? In other words, is there any overall, independent, externally-referenced, big-picture utility to producing great Danes and Dandie Dinmont terriers? In other words, should anyone other than the die-hard fancy hobbyist care?

Might we need the unique genetics of the Dane or the Dandie for some purpose in the future? (With "need" broadly defined to embrace many human desires and priorities, and "unique" granted for the purpose of discussion.)

Maybe? Let's be conservative and assume yes, without asking for evidence. Lots of people do weirder things, have weird hobbies and priorities, without having to justify them to the larger culture. We should as a culture care about maintaining diverse populations of domestic dogs, and not consider it purely a vanity project for weird hobbyists.

Then what happened to four core considerations of genetic conservation:

• Prevent genetic loss from new bottlenecks

• Maintain biological fitness through controlled genetic infusions

• Select in every generation for relevant, useful, traits

• Use it or lose it

The fancy breeding of "purebred" dogs violates all of these considerations in a congruence of stupid that may be unique in the animal world.

Popular (show-winning) sires, inbreed and purge practices, panic-discards of animals who carry identified deleterious recessives, and ever-narrower criteria for "type" (the confusion of extreme specificity for high standards) continue to bottleneck fancy populations. If anything, the diversity loss is accelerating with the advent of genetic testing for identified deleterious recessives. Instead of using the results of a DNA test for a deleterious allele to breed carriers more intelligently, the carrier, the whole damned dog, gets tossed out of the gene pool by those who feel shame over contamination.

DNA parentage verification gives self-styled museum curators a new tool to accelerate breed death. Some breeds have limped along for this long only because of the mongrel in the woodpile in past decades -- uncontrolled, sometimes unintentional, infusions of desperately-needed novel genetics. The kennel clubs' closed studbooks remain closed and, now, effectively policed. Fanciers clutch their pearls over the appearance of a novel color that may or may not indicate crossbreeding on the down-low some generations back, while wondering why their specials bitch won't conceive, their BIS dog is shooting blanks, and the typey sister of the above just barely managed to squeeze out two live, if fragile, puppies on the third attempt, and damn, one of them has a white spot where it's not allowed per the new "standard," so that one is going to be spayed. An inbreeding coefficient of .8 is just linebreeding for good type, right?  If fancy-dog breeders did literally nothing else wrong, they'd still be killing the breeds they profess to love via the enforcement of the Victorian closed studbook in the name of "purity."

Selection, each generation, is primarily for those traits that advance the owner's success at her hobby, which is entering dog pageants, but the justification for what they imagine to be "preservation" is couched in romantic stories about the historical function of the breed. Our museum exhibit is meant to represent boar hunting or bullbaiting or the lapwarmer of royalty. Sometimes the progenitors of the contemporary animal actually once did those things, sometimes, often, it's just so much fantasy hokum. Sometimes the ancestors' job is no more -- and often we have reason to be thankful for that -- and sometimes there are dogs still, or once again, performing that job, whether they are another branch of the same lineage (even, sometimes, sharing a breed name if not a recent genetic history or much resemblance) or an entirely different lineage.

But, we sez to the "preservation" breeder, your dog does not herd sheep, battle boars, guard the estate with lethal force, draft sledges, patrol the mountain pass, retrieve a hundred ducks a day from icy water ...

But he could if I wanted him to.

Yeah, no. That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works.

To whit, Great Danes do not hunt boars anywhere in the world of which I am aware, but curs and bandogs and other kinds of badass dogs do, and are selected rather harshly for their ability to do so. The hyena-backed show shepherd doesn't patrol with the soldier, but his working-bred distant cousin -- whether called a "German shepherd" or a "Malinois" -- does. I am aware of no Scottie that goes to ground after ill-natured burrowing prey, but plenty of muttly Jack Russells do it.

Barn hunt doesn't qualify, guys. If a pet golden retriever wins the same merit badge, it's not a breed selection test for a professional ratting terrier. Your carting title is cute, but it does not make your Bernese mountain dog a working draft animal. A working draft animal shouldn't drop dead from cardiomyopathy on a brisk unburdened walk at the age of four.

While looking different from the functional ancestors -- being much larger, much smaller, much fluffier, much shorter in the leg or longer in the back, possessing a convex face and painfully dwarfed body, a banana-back, a needle-nose and vestigial-appearing eyes -- is not the only measure of divergence from the functional ancestors that we could apply to a fancy breed, it is a pretty easily appreciated neon sign. A sign that nothing has been "preserved" over prior decades except folklore and self-deception, and even those have been bred up larger.

To be sure, a dog can look just like a functional ancestor and fail the test of actual function. Because the drive and instinct and heart and desire, the difficulties and opinions of a motivated being, were bred out in the successful quest for a compliant show dog who would sit quietly in a crate in a hired handler's Winnebago until his performance in the circle-jerk was required. Or because the bones and heart are no longer strong, the spine does not flex and surge, the cancer comes at six and the job takes seven years to master; the spirit is sometimes willing while the flesh is weak, and that's the worst. The worst.

But a visually obvious transformation (and usually exaggeration) of body hardly ever belies the persistence of the brain and drive and heart and desire. One cannot select for "everything," and hard selection that changes the appearance of the body according to fad and fashion is wedded to null selection for the traits of function.

The trait is not used. It is lost. Nothing historically used or useful has been preserved, conserved, stewarded or adapted to new demands. There may be diversity in the sense of alleles that don't exist, or exist widely, in the larger canine population, but are prevalent or universal in these isolated gene pools -- alleles for tiny eyes, color dilution, short limbs, a coat that can grow 3' long if kept wrapped in tissue and off the dirty floor, giant or miniature stature, dime-sized round spots and ears that drag the ground. Alleles for kidney stones or seizures or various flavors of vision defects, flabby hearts, constricted airways, Hapsburg-bleedouts, predictable cancer-bombs or explosions of unreasoned rage. Those useful genetic models for medical tragedy that are a feature to the brain trust behind "National Purebred Dog Day."

So, I bet you already know, although I breed a "rare" kind of dog, I am not a "preservation" breeder. Like most English shepherd breeders who put any thought at all into the matter, I identify with many (not all) of the goals and values of livestock conservation breeders, and am informed by the science behind that conservation and the practical techniques used to perform it. I want to practice the right kind of selection, keep the gene pool large and diverse, value healthy variation even when I am not enamored of the specific variant, welcome new genetics into the pool.

I try to be skeptical and rigorous about how much, and how, our muttly, practical farm collies have been conserved from the diverse genetic foundation of their humble and ubiquitous ancestors on colonial American farms, and before that, mostly British crofters. I try not to be too impressed by photographs of Victorian-era dogs who look exactly like modern ES, right down to their tolerant or bemused or dutiful expressions as they stand beside owners who clearly worked hard and valued them very much -- other than to smirk a little about how it is that the "look" has actually been "preserved" unaltered for centuries without any formal systems in place to attempt to do that.

But when I read some seemingly fanciful account of some Ohio farm dog's sagacity in 1911 and see the exact same quality of mind in one of my own canine partners, watch them perform some task or reach some insight that Official Dog proclaims Not Possible, empiricism wins over skepticism, and I just say fuckit and go with my lyin' eyes. And cultivate an attitude of humble gratitude for what prior generations passed down to me, a determination to convey it forward in my turn.

Why conserve traditional multipurpose farm shepherds? It only makes sense if your values drive you to want to conserve traditional small agriculture and pastoral practices; if you think agriculture practice and policy reached its apex with the odious Earl Butz, you won't give a good god-damn. Enjoy your antibiotic chicken and e.coli-beef.  Well, it might make sense if you acknowledge that there are "modern" jobs for which those traits once selected on the homestead especially suit a practical collie-dog. Those will fade out, though, once the selection environment ceases to be at least partly the small diversified farm. We have to keep going back to that well. Preserving the well and drinking the water are the same task.

As I contemplated the little beans who compose our fifth litter of English shepherds, and my reasons for making more like this, I thought a lot about that history, the mandate to be realistic, and skeptical, and rigorous about the past that we are bringing forward into the future, not as museum objects, but as full participants in a worthwhile community. These babies would each be, not an exhibit, but a historian.

The historians I envy are not the worthy Hank Commagers and Barbara Tuchmans, but the fictional ones who move between past and present, who participate in both worlds as acting beings, who become of both times through technology in much the way these tiny creatures piled among my feet do automatically through their persistent, lovingly-conserved genetics.

Also, Connie Willis is just a god-damned spectacular writer, and merits the homage. If you haven't read her Oxford time-travel novels yet, you need to go do that.*

So, introducing The Historians. May they take the past bestowed on them by their genes and carry it forward into a future that is humane and sustainable and scaled for Nature, and for human beings and their best friends and partners.

The girls:

You can call her Catherine, that's okay too. Her devotion may make you mistake her for a Saint, and who is to say that it is really a mistake?

Kivrin field marks: I am black. My blaze does not meet my wide collar.
Her instinct is to do the right thing, even though it's impossible. It all turns out better than you could have ever expected.

Verity field marks: I am seal. My narrow blaze meets my broken collar over the top of my head.
She'll sacrifice everything to take care of you, even if you are impossible to love. You will become good as a result.

Merope field marks: I am seal. My wide blaze meets my broken collar over the top of my head.

The boys:

Is he American Mike or British Michael? This historian contains both personae. He'll do big things because the circumstances demand it.

Mike field marks: I am tricolor like my Daddy.
Will never, ever, abandon his charges. If only everyone could be watched over by a Dunworthy.

Dunworthy field marks: I am black. I have a mostly dark face and look a lot like Badri, but I still have a little spit-splash of white on my forehead. This will probably disappear shortly. I have a black on my left front leg where Badri does not.

Despite a rather formal veneer, Finch lives to serve, and finds surprising and spectacular ways to do so.

I am sable like my Ebil Gramma Rosie
Colin does not respect walls, boundaries, quarantines prohibitions or impediments of any kind. He's got stuff to do, mostly involving saving your ass. Best get out of his way, he's gonna do it. You are welcome.

I am seal. I have a wide blaze and a neck spot instead of a collar, and I am built like a bear cub, like my great-uncle Moe.

Badri will get you there and bring you back. You want Badri on your team.

Badri field marks: I am black.  I have a no blaze. I look a lot like Dunworthy, but my left arm is all white.


* To Say Nothing of the Dog for lighthearted farce, mostly, a silly fun romp. Blackout and All Clear (must read in that order and together) for existential suspense. The Doomsday Book for when you are up for having your heart probed and prodded and then deftly ripped from your thorax by the author's crochet hook. I'm not crying, you're crying.


  1. Screencapping being the best possible approach to archival, but have I introduced you to our lord and savior

  2. This is GOOOOD. Damn fine. 👍👍👍😄😄

  3. "I try not to be too impressed by photographs of Victorian-era dogs who look exactly like modern ES, right down to their tolerant or bemused or dutiful expressions as they stand beside owners who clearly worked hard and valued them very much -- other than to smirk a little about how it is that the "look" has actually been "preserved" unaltered for centuries without any formal systems in place to attempt to do that."

    I think there has been some selection for looks over the years - Grandpa's dog was an goodun and it looked like Jack over there so we'll breed Jack. But also I think form follows function in ways we don't understand yet (or maybe ever). Genes for ear set or tail carriage or more (or less) irish white pattern markings are quite possibly linked to behavioral traits. Selecting for desired instincts and behaviors may tend to bring the dogs back toward a particular look. In this case the look of the general all purpose shepherd dog.

  4. Really enjoyed this read -wow. Great stuff. puppies are beautiful

  5. Love this post: I learned a lot, some of it disturbing, and it expressed a breed conservation approach I find appealing. And the pup profiles are the very soul of concise wit.

  6. As the proud owner of a non-AKC breed, I am hopping up and down cheering, thinking I might make hard copies of this and hand it out to just about everyone I see walking (and I use the term "walking" loosely here, picture flexi-lead with lunging twirling dog at end). Yes, I might hit some parking lots too, and stuff copies under wiper blades.

  7. Thank You. A delight to read and share! Love the bios on the puppies, too. :)

  8. Hello, Heather.

    I am grateful to you now not only for our long, intensely helpful talk this past weekend, but also for the brilliant article above. I now feel educated (relative to knowing nothing previously) in a field that I have never understood. You write beautifully, with authority and passion. And you should be utterly convincing to those whom you struggle to win over to good sense.

    I am now trying to decide which of your lovely friends above I will borrow as the model for my new "Shep." I am considering the personality descriptions as well as the coloring.

    Again, thank you for all of it. I hope we get a chance to talk again some day.

    Paula S. Jordan

  9. I want to tattoo paragraphs of this text on, um, people. Certain people. Yep. I do.

    Also, and to wit: HOly shit. I am a gigantic, read her whole list every year or so Connie Willis fan and your litter names had me fist pumping and shouting in a way that alarmed Andy into a barking fit. Andy's name was almost Badri, and in fact, it's become one of his matter what, he will get you out of that pickle, even if there's no way in hell it should be possible.

    Here's to conserving our muttly working partners.



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